Town officials in Pembroke can now argue their points and cast votes at meetings when they are out of the room, even hundreds of miles away.
One year after rejecting the idea, the Board of Selectmen recently voted to allow members of town committees and boards to participate remotely in meetings through the use of audio and video technologies.
“There are some good people in town on boards and committees who are busy with work or have health issues that take them away from meetings,” said Selectman Daniel Trabucco. He said the policy would give them a mechanism to take part even during those absences.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley authorized cities and towns in November 2011 to allow members of their boards and committees to participate remotely at meetings under certain circumstances. Pembroke is among the latest to take advantage of the policy option, which Coakley added to new regulations governing the state’s Open Meeting Law that she had put into effect that Oct. 1.
South of Boston, the towns of Cohasset, Dedham, Mansfield, Marshfield, West Bridgewater, and Westwood have also adopted it.
A decision to allow remote participation must be made by the municipality’s chief executive officer — usually the mayor in a city or the board of selectmen in a town. If adopted, the policy must apply to all boards, though the chief executive officer could fund the costs only for certain boards and could allow individual boards to opt out.
When allowed, remote participation can occur only when the board chairman or chairwoman deems that it is too difficult for a member to be physically present due to personal illness or disability, emergency, military service, or geographic distance.
Trabucco said he has heard concerns that the policy could be misused, citing the scenario of “snowbirds going to Florida for the winter and casting their votes via phone or conference call.” But he called that scenario unrealistic. “If you are away on business or vacation, the last thing you want to do is hang on the phone for a meeting.
“I think it will truly be for the rare occasion where the vote is needed” or if a board member will be absent for a crucial vote on an issue he or she has been championing, he said.
Trabucco first proposed the policy for Pembroke in March 2012, but his board voted 3-2 to reject it. “They just didn’t know enough about it and weren’t ready to enact it,” he said.
But on March 25, the board voted 4-0 to adopt the policy. Board chairman Greg Hanley, who is not seeking reelection in the April 26 annual town election, did not cast a vote.
“There were a couple of instances where it would have come in handy for us. That’s why I think the selectmen changed their minds over the past year,” said Town Administrator Edwin Thorne.
Selectman Lew Stone, who had voted against adopting the policy last year, said he decided to support it after seeing how it works and the positives it might offer.
“I’m retired now, but most of the other officials are still working and have important jobs. And people do go on vacation. There are times you are not going to be available,” he said. Allowing those board members to vote would be a plus, he said.
Stone said he also hoped the policy could spur participation on town boards by residents who might otherwise shy away from getting involved because of concern that they might have to miss occasional meetings.
Hanley said he opposed remote participation last year because he believes “to be an elected official, you should have the time to do the job in person.” He did not stand in the way of it this year, however, because clarifying language changes Coakley made to the rules last August convinced him the process would not be abused.
Hanley, who said he decided not to seek another term due to his busy schedule, said, “I could have stayed on as a selectman and used remote participation,” but he said to do so would have been hypocritical, given his stance on the issue.
Matt Norton, chairman of the Recreation Commission, said he welcomes the policy, though he is not sure whether his board will need it.
“I think this is a step in the 21st century,” he said, noting that in his job as a project manager he routinely works with people on a remote basis around the world. He said there was no reason that practice in private industry could not be “translated into a public environment.”
In some towns that have adopted the policy, local officials have already begun to make use of it.
In Cohasset, two selectmen have participated remotely in meetings, according to Tracey Connors, secretary to the town manager.
She said Selectwoman Diane Kennedy participated in a board meeting by speakerphone while vacationing in California on the night the policy was adopted. More recently, member Leland Jenkins communicated by Skype on April 4 and 9, also while on vacation in California.
In West Bridgewater, two members of the Board of Selectmen, Nancy Maloney and Jerry Lawrence, have participated remotely at meetings when they were out of state due to their jobs, according to Mallory Aronstein, the board’s confidential secretary.
“Our board doesn’t prefer it to being in a meeting room because it’s hard to sit on the phone for four hours and not be there,” she said. “We use it as a necessity.”